Monday, February 1, 2010

UPDATED Holy Snafu, Mayer-man! Roxy Paine Public Art Announcement Ignites Canuck-style Controversy in Ottawa

Reader! Have I been under a rock for the past two weeks? I think I must have been because until today I had completely missed (a) the National Gallery's announcement that it will acquire and install a piece of Roxy Paine's art in Ottawa and (b) a couple of snafus relating to same.

Now let me say right off the bat--who does not love the work of Roxy Paine? Well, a lot of Ottawans, apparently. But I can say with honesty that I've enjoyed the Paine works I've seen--primarily earlier sculptures in mushy, squishy, amorphous red in person, and images of big and coolio metal trees in reproduction.

However, it's clear the National Gallery effed up a bit in the process of this one.

First--this may be purely one for the media people, but it is truly bizarre--the National Gallery apparently handed out images of the Paine piece to media and then, after the Ottawa Citizen published the image on its front page and angry web commenting commenced, said the image couldn't be used for publicity anymore. As Citizen reporter David Reevely pointedly put it on his blog,

Update: There used to be an image of the thing at this point in the post. Unbelievably, the massive twerps who run the National Gallery are saying that despite their having given out images of the sculpture they're spending a lot of our money to buy, they didn't actually have the right to, and so they're enforcing a copyright claim that says we can't publicize the image anymore, even though it's been on the front page of the newspaper. Which, you know, makes them look like they're proud of what they're doing and are confident people will like it.
The done thing at this point, if you didn't see one of the 130-some-,000 images we printed and distributed the other day, is to picture the worst thing you can imagine that fits the following description and imagine they're buying that and putting it up downtown. It's actually not that bad, but they're just that dumb.
Hey, National Gallery, or Roxy Paine for that matter: send me an image and I'll replace this text with it. In the meantime, here's a copy of our front page.

Here's that copy of the front page, from Reevely's blog:

Secondly--and this is the part that seems to appeal to a wider audience--the announcement set off hundreds of angry commenters who criticized, variously: the piece; how much it cost; the fact that it is going to be in a historically important location to Canada, but is not created by a Canadian; the fact that art in general sucks, etc. Though this type of response is in some ways to be expected whenever a public gallery forks over big money for a piece of contemporary art, I do think it possible that the way the Gallery approached this installation played a factor. For one, if the piece had been one of Paine's more straightforward tree sculptures, I can bet you dollars to donuts it would have gone over better than a massive "needle" such as is proposed. (Even I feel a bit weird about the needle, Paine-drooler though I be.) Also, though gallery director Marc Mayer did say in an interview that "We've commissioned works by two major Canadian sculptors, one for the front of the museum...this time next year we'll probably have five sculptures, three will be Canadian," it likely would have been wiser to play up those Canuck commissions a bit more.

Anyway, I find all this very interesting, particularly in light of the timing for a recent article by Greg Buium in the Walrus, which posited: "The National Gallery’s acquisition of Voice of Fire created a massive controversy. Could it happen today?" Hm.... I, er, wonder.

More links to info about this issue:
Original front-page news report in Ottawa Citizen
Sidebar on National Gallery sell
Full interview notes with Marc Mayer from Citizen reporter Maria Cook
Anti-sculpture column by Ken Gray
David Reevely's pro-sculpture, anti-publicity-image-pulling post

Oh, and seeing as how that rock may still, in fact, be on top of me, feel free to correct or update links in the comments.

UPDATE (Feb 2)
The National Gallery spokesfolks got in touch with me today to clarify a few points from their side of the story:

  • The image pulled from the Citizen is one that was used in a presentation to the National Capital Commission, who has to approve the Paine project before it goes ahead. Though the gallery refused to give the image out to media, the National Capital Commission did give it out, an "honest mistake" given the image was created by the National Gallery (not Paine) for presentation purposes only.
  • A Citizen photographer was at the gallery recently to take photos of Paine's presentation maquettes, photos which could soon appear on the Citizen's website (these images have the gallery's reproduction okay)
  • The other public art pieces Mayer mentioned in passing -- the ones by Canucks -- were not presented to the National Capital Commission (and not covered in related releases) because they are not planned for NCC land and do not require NCC approval. Still, the gallery is keeping mum on what this new "sculpture garden" effort might look like, as well as which artists, Canadian or otherwise, might be involved until a more extensive announcement in May-ish time.
Keep those cards and letters coming!

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